A military court handed stiff prison terms to 19 Ukrainians, three nationals from Belarus and two Russians accused of serving as mercenaries for ousted leader Moamer Kadhafi in Libya’s conflict last year.
One of the Russians, judged to have been the coordinator, was condemned to life imprisonment while the others were sentenced to 10 years’ hard labour.
The 24 men, who all denied the charges and insisted they were in Libya to work in its oil sector, were accused of having primed ground-to-air missile batteries to target NATO warplanes supporting the revolt against Kadhafi.
At the start of the trial in April, a military spokesman said the eastern Europeans had also backed the regime in attacks on civilians while “in the pay of Kadhafi and his brigades.”
The spokesman said the “mercenaries,” held since their arrest on the fall of Tripoli in late August 2011 by a brigade of former rebels in the capital, had travelled to Libya of their own accord without the backing of their governments.
The ambassadors of Ukraine and Belarus were in court for the verdict and said the men would appeal.
Before the verdict was read out, Belarus Ambassador Anatoly Stepus said the 24 men had come to work for a joint Libya-Russia oil company.
But his Ukrainian counterpart, Mykola Nahornyi, said after the sentence that the accused were forced to work for Kadhafi’s regime “under armed threat.”
“This is part of the case,” he said without elaborating on why the men travelled to the North African nation in the first place.
He added that the rocket launchers “did not target NATO or any Western nation’s aircraft,” noting that the latter had not filed a complaint against the accused and that the weapons were never fired.
On April 11, Ukraine’s foreign ministry said it believed its citizens were innocent and would fight for their release. If convicted, Kiev would seek to have them repatriated to serve out their sentences.
Ukraine had close links with Kadhafi’s regime, and estimates that around 1,500 of its citizens were in Libya before the conflict started in mid-February 2011. Among them was Kadhafi’s Ukrainian nurse, Galina Kolotnitska.